Poor Shemini Atzeret. The last of the biblical holidays to take place in the month of Tishrei, it’s the hardest both to pronounce and to explain.
The Torah simply states that after seven days of Sukkot, we are to observe an eighth (shemini) day of atzeret, a word which means either stopping (work) or a solemn occasion. Why? Because it is a day of complete rest. Why? Because it is a solemn occasion. Why? Because it is the eighth day of a seven-day festival. Huh?
Shemini Atzeret sounds like a holiday that a Jewish version of Bart Simpson would invent to get out of taking an exam.
The ambiguity over the nature and purpose of the day raised a number of questions for the rabbis, several of which are addressed on today’s daf.
When we left off yesterday, the Gemara was beginning to address the question of how to observe the eighth day of the festival in the Diaspora, where the eighth day is treated as though it might really be the seventh day of Sukkot.
Here’s the problem: If it’s actually the seventh day of Sukkot, then a) there would be an obligation to dwell in the sukkah and b) it would not be Shemini Atzeret, so certain liturgical additions specific to the holiday should not be said. But if it’s actually the eighth day, then it is truly Shemini Atzeret and a) there is no obligation to dwell in the sukkah, b) reciting a blessing over dwelling in the sukkah would constitute a blessing made for no purpose (a big no no for the sages!) and c) the special additions would be said.
The Gemara then records the following dispute:
According to [Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav], who says that the status of the eighth day is like that of the seventh day with regard to the mitzvah of sukkah, we also recite the blessing: To dwell in the sukkah. But according to [Rabbi Yohanan], who says that its status is like that of the eighth day, we do not recite the blessing (for dwelling in the sukkah).
Rabbi Yohanan’s logic is sound: If we affirm the day’s status as Shemini Atzeret, it would be inconsistent to say the blessing over dwelling in the sukkah, because that is a mitzvah for the seven days of Sukkot only. After some back and forth, the Gemara agrees with Rabbi Yohanan, stating that the law is to dwell in the sukkah without saying the blessing.
The Gemara then cites another of Rabbi Yohanan’s statements:
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: One recites z’man (the Shehechiyanu blessing) on the eighth day of the festival (i.e. Shemini Atzeret) and one does not recite the blessing of z’man on the seventh day of Passover.
The Shehechiyanu blessing, which celebrates firsts, is customarily recited only on the first day of a holiday. By drawing a distinction between the seventh day of Passover — which is obviously part of the Passover holiday — and Shemini Atzeret, Rabbi Yohanan teaches that even though it is called “the eighth day,” Shemini Atzeret is not a continuation of Sukkot, but rather a holiday in its own right and therefore warrants the Shehechiyanu blessing. After some discussion, the Gemara again concludes that the law follows Rabbi Yohanan: We say the Shehechiyanu on Shemini Atzeret.
What does all this mean for us today? On a practical level, it means exactly what the Gemara teaches: We recite the Shehechiyanu on Shemini Atzeret. We make special insertions in certain prayers. And most Diaspora communities follow the practice of sitting in the sukkah, but without making a blessing.
On a spiritual level, perhaps the Talmud is pushing us to find meaning in a festival that doesn’t seem to have much meaning ascribed to it by the Torah. After a month of holidays that take us on a guided spiritual journey, it would be easy to shrug off Shemini Atzeret as not all that important, to say that our spiritual work is done.
But by affirming that Shemini Atzeret is a distinct holiday in every way, I’d like to think that the Talmud is asking us to take one more step on the path — even if it’s not so obvious what that step is. It reminds us that the Torah need not articulate a holiday’s sacred purpose for it to be sacred. Sometimes, finding that sacred purpose, and making meaning of it, is up to us.
Read all of Sukkah 47 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 23rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.